How U.S. Can Support Central America’s Climate Migrants

Immigration, aid policies can help farming families survive in their home countries

By Bruce Gil


Farmland around the world is becoming more scarce, as temperatures continue to rise. By 2070, 19 percent of land on Earth could become part of a barely livable hot zone, according to current models.

For people who live on subsistence farming in Central America—many of whom never planned to leave ancestral homes—migrating to a nearby city can be the only option for survival. 

Violence is surging in those cities. In 2020, Honduras had one of the highest murder rates in the world, with 39 murders per 100,000 people—seven times the rate of the U.S. The rate is even higher in major cities like Tegucigalpa. Fleeing this violence, farmers are forced to move even farther—this time thousands of miles north to the U.S.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who oversees U.S. diplomatic efforts addressing migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras through Mexico, at a “Northern Triangle” virtual roundtable. (Lawrence Jackson)

They’re migrating because they have lost the ability to stay where they are, and they don’t see any safe and feasible reasons to stay inside their own country.

—Sarah Bermeo, political economist and professor at Duke University 

During the international COP26 conference in Glasgow, world leaders hammered out commitments to tackle different aspects of climate change, including human mobility.  Here in the U.S., President Joe Biden had already called for a report from his national-security adviser on climate change and its impact on migration.  

Advocacy groups such as Climate Refugees and Refugees International have published their own reports with recommendations for the Biden administration. Experts and advocates agree that the U.S. can do more to build resilient communities in migrants’ home countries and stop the need for people to leave in the first place. This can be done by allowing for more legal immigration so people can send money back home, as well as improvements to how foreign aid is distributed.

“They’re migrating because they have lost the ability to stay where they are, and they don’t see any safe and feasible reasons to stay inside their own country,” says Sarah Bermeo, a political economist and professor at Duke University, about Central American families who are choosing to leave their homes.

Sending money home  

One way to build more resilient and safe communities is to expand legal and temporary migration, which would provide more applicants temporary protected status (TPS) and nonimmigrant work visas. 

TPS can open the door to the legal labor market, higher wages and more money to send back home. 

“We made the argument that TPS is actually immigration policy,” says David Leblang, a political economist and professor at the University of Virginia.

Money sent from family members living abroad already makes up 12 to 24 percent of the gross domestic product in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, according to the nonpartisan Center for American Progress, which published a report in October making the case for increasing the number of people with temporary protected status to reduce migration from Central America. There are at least 800,000 immigrants from 13 different countries who have or are eligible for TPS, according to the report. 

Another immigration lever would be to increase the number of visas for temporary seasonal jobs in agriculture, restaurants, households or other sectors for which there is a shortage of U.S. workers. 

That allows migrants to come in on a temporary basis, earn a wage that is likely much higher than what they would earn at home and bring those dollars back home, which is the equivalent of a remittance,” says Leblang. 

Better foreign aid  

U.S. foreign aid tends to involve too many middlemen, Bermeo says. Aid typically is funneled through big for-profit companies that then send private employees to implement the aid projects. 

“It’s just kind of economically inefficient to be having money go through these multiple layers and then possibly not even get to the local people on the ground,” says Bermeo. 

According to a Climate Refugees report, past U.S. Agency for International Development programs such as Alliance for Prosperity—which were designed to address the root causes of migration to the U.S.—didn’t reach where they were most needed. Instead, contracts supported wealthy people and focused largely on security and violence prevention.

A better way to spend aid would be to fund projects that require collaboration with local individuals and groups that allows them to make decisions on how money is spent, says Bermeo. One international organization is currently taking that approach. 

The climate change division of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global research partnership, is helping Central and South American farmers understand how climate change can affect their crops so that they can make more informed decisions. 

The initiatives, called Local Technical Agroclimatic Committees (LTACs), work by linking climate scientists and farmers who combine the science of meteorological forecasts with deep-rooted local expertise to guide informed decisions on which crops to grow and when. 

“The committees can help reduce crop losses and this is key to maintaining income and food security for the population,” says Deissy Martínez Barón, a regional program leader for the global research group

The 39 LTACs established across Latin America, including committees in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Three hundred institutions participate and more than 500,000 farmers are receiving information. 

Both Martínez Baron and Bremeo agree that programs like these need to be scaled to have a bigger impact. Resources need to reach the people who need it the most—and know best how to spend aid money. 

“For the United States, the issue of migration is key. But in order to reduce migration, it is necessary to generate opportunities in the countryside,” says Martínez Baron, “Opportunities that provide a way out, not just maintain the status quo of poverty, but that really develop opportunities that can improve the livelihoods of the population.”